Chickens on the Homestead: To Pasture or Free-range?


| 9/14/2017 8:42:00 AM


Tags: chickens, raising livestock, pastured meat, Canada, Ontario, Rebecca Harrold,

Chickens in front of Coop

Before we had a flock of laying hens, we envisioned free-ranging birds foraging about our property, snatching up insects and living the life of happy chickens. And for the first year, this was the life for our small flock of Chanteclers (10 hens plus a rooster).  

Two years ago, to prepare for the arrival of the Chanteclers, we re-furbished a pre-existing chicken coop by cutting out a chicken door and building a ramp into a 300 square foot run. A shingled roof covers the run and the 2by4 framed walls are wrapped with ½ inch hardware cloth. To guard the birds from digging predators, we also dug a trench and buried the hardware cloth a foot into the ground. When the birds arrived we let them get used to the coop and the run for several days before opening the door briefly in the evening and letting them wander about, but not get so far away that they couldn’t find their way back to the roost. A couple days of this and the birds quickly learned to come back to the coop to roost and spent their days freely foraging about the yard.

Fast-forward two years and we replaced our small Chantecler flock with a larger flock of Red Sex Links (30 hens plus a rooster). Perhaps it’s a combination of different character traits (the Red Sex Links have more spunk and curiosity than the skittish and timid Chanteclers) or simply due to a three-fold increase in the number of birds, but our new chickens soon took advantage of all the benefits free-ranging afforded them. They ranged far and wide and got into the vegetable and flower gardens. We responded by fencing the gardens… but we eventually ran out of fence. Then the rooster started to show aggression. We responded by setting up a pasture outside the run and letting them forage about within a confined space. The set-up worked for a few weeks.

But following a month of pasturing, we began to encounter some challenges that inspired us to find a compromise between pasture and free-range. First, we observed that some of the birds were making gargled clucks and the rooster had stopped crowing. On a hunch, we placed a dish of gravel in the run to provide them with a source of pebbles for their crops. In short order they were back to making typical chicken sounds.

Our next challenge was devising different configurations for the pasture to give the birds new forage while still permitting them access to the stationary coop - our options were quickly exhausted. To compensate for the meager offering of fresh forage we tossed in handfuls of weeds pulled from the gardens, lamb’s quarters plucked from a nearby field, and scraps from the kitchen.

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